The last time Paul George was the de facto number one on a team, it was for the Indiana Pacers, and he was attempting to steer a good team through a sea of juggernauts. Remember that? The second-ever iteration of a Pacers powerhouse, sitting atop or near the top of the Eastern Conference on a perennial basis? Nowadays, that seems as distant as the days of Reggie Miller. Much like LeBron in a Heat jersey, or better yet, George in a Pacers jersey.
George exited that first stint as a number one in a huff. It went a little something like this: Indiana traded George Hill, which pissed off PG, and once he started hearing his name in rumors, he asked out. “What am I doing here? You know what I mean? They don’t want to win,” he’d later say, long after being traded to Oklahoma City, even after he was traded to Los Angeles. There’s a funny correlation between those two stops for George: he was never asked to be the number-one guy for either. Now, he’s never necessarily been a number two — perhaps a distinction of 1B is more befitting — but not since Indiana had he been tasked with leading a team from day one.
Until the 2021 playoffs. And until now.
Speaking at Clippers media day Monday, George acknowledged the responsibilities he’ll assume this year without Kawhi Leonard, and he seems, at least, unconcerned and hopeful. He told the media that he saw enough during the team’s deep run in the playoffs last season to inspire confidence aplenty. “I think this group proved what we can accomplish being down Kawhi,” he said. “That was enough going into this summer knowing what I need to bring, what I need to add, what I need to work on.... I’ve been in this position, so it gives me a level of comfort being the number one guy to start, and I’m ready to lead.”
Clippers forward Paul George on feeling “comfortable being the No. 1 guy.” pic.twitter.com/by2qrBktVu— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) September 27, 2021
George, of course, is referencing the fact that the Clippers pushed the Phoenix Suns to six games in the Western Conference Finals while down a man — undisputedly their most important man. While Leonard took up residence in a luxury box, PG-13 and the remaining Clippers stormed through the playoffs, finishing off the Utah Jazz (Leonard went down in Game 4) and taking two games from the Suns. Their first three losses in the Conference Finals came by a combined 11 points.
It was evident, win or lose, that the team was evolving in real time over the course of their final eight games without Leonard. George averaged 29.6 points, 11 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game over that stretch. Reggie Jackson, who stepped up in a big way once Leonard went out, averaged 21.4 points on 48.5 percent shooting.
But we would be remiss not to mention that there’s some irony to George’s comments. The notion that “this group proved what [they] can accomplish being down Kawhi” is fair, though what they accomplished was more of the same for the Clippers: falling short. It sounds harsh, but there’s truth to it; the idea that the Clippers now know what they are without Kawhi isn’t exactly something to write home about.
The Conference Finals are a nice stepping stone, but eventually, a team is supposed to leap from one to the next. Although George says he pushed his way out of Indiana because his name was popping up in rumors, that the team couldn’t make that leap has to have been a factor. Is that scenario something that lingers for the Clippers? Is George, once again, on a team existing on borrowed time?
Well, yes. But we knew that already. It’s not breaking news that NBA teams operate in regimes and that the Clippers franchise has yet to produce one that can conquer the greatest beast of all: a championship. Arguably, this is its best chance at winning one, and it will continue to be its best chance for as long as Leonard and George remain in town. Leonard, as candid as ever during his own media day availability yesterday, put worries that his stay would be short to rest by detailing what went into his contract decision this offseason:
“The best situation for me to me was to do a one-and- one, and then opt out, and then sign a long-term five-year deal, but there’s a lot of concerns that that brings up for you guys and your job and it creates storylines that I’m going to leave the team. One thing, I wanted to secure some money, and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year. If I would have took the one-and-one, I probably would have not played just to be cautious, and opted out and took a five-year. But I’m here. I’m here to be a Clipper. I’m not going to another team unless something drastic happens. I’m here for the long run.”
And that Leonard wants to play this season — if he can — is a huge step in the right direction for the Clippers, not because George can’t be a number one, but because Leonard is a superior one. In the meantime, though, George has an opportunity to continue shedding the brief legacy he carried from the bubble into last season. He spoke more about that yesterday, noting that he’s “looking forward to taking on all facets, whether it’s scoring, defending, playmaking... I’m really going into this year as this being one of my most complete seasons as far as doing a little bit of everything. I think I proved it and showed it to myself during the playoffs in that run, that stretch against Phoenix, whether it was rebounding, pushing the tempo, play-making, scoring the ball. That really just fed my appetite even more.”
Carrying the weight of a number-one option over the course of 82 games isn’t an unfamiliar bear for George, but it’s bound to feel different. He’s taken away plenty from those responsibilities in the past; “how to control the game,” he mentioned in particular. And in order for the Clippers to have long-term success this season, for as long as Leonard remains sidelined and rehabbing, they’ll require the version of George that existed in the 2021 playoffs to just become George. His team — that is what it is now, anyway — believes in him; “We’ve all got do better, do more, especially without Kawhi back. But I’m pretty confident in PG leading the way for us all year long.” Nicolas Batum said. “PG is going to be the man for us.”
“I do think what you do take away from being the number one option on a nightly basis is how I can control the game and impact the game and play the game, slow the game down how I want it to go,” George continued yesterday. “So that will just be my approach. How can I — how can this game be a Paul George game? All of that is just going to come from, how do I help my teammates? How do I make them better? How do I be a good teammate?”
All pivotal questions that need answering in 2021-22, all of which point to how Los Angeles can best maximize a season of minimal expectations: with George elevating his play as a whole, and upon Kawhi’s return, remaining some slightly smaller version of a supernova. That expectations aren’t high is a sneaky positive, but if there was ever a time to shatter the ceiling that has been preemptively set for you, it’s now. George is ready to be a top dog again, in a place he feels wanted and comfortable; how effective he is in being exactly that will be this season’s constant barometer.